The Questions We Asked: JW Lees


The Questions We Asked: JW Lees

This journal series goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with that led to our work together. In this edition of The Questions We Asked, we speak to William Lees-Jones, Managing Director at JW Lees.

The brewer and pub company JW Lees is nearly 200 years old, yet William – the sixth generation of his family to lead the business – maintains a restless spirit to keep moving forward. William explains: “This is one of my favourite cartoons. This is a typical family-business board meeting. You’ve got Dad at the end of the table and the kids along the side, and he’s saying: ‘Instead of risking anything new, let’s play it safe by continuing our slow decline into obsolescence’.”

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“My inspiration as the leader of our family business is really just to build a great business that is a source of pride for us all: colleagues working in the business now, those that came before us, and those that are coming next,” says William. This is an attitude that can be traced right back to the founder of the business.

JW Lees was founded in 1828. “John Lees, who was our founder, had a vision. He’d been in textiles and he bought a row of cottages in Middleton Junction and started brewing beer. This was the 19th century equivalent of buying a vineyard in the south of France and retiring.” At this time, customers would go to breweries with a jug and buy their beer. Due to the prevalence of cholera, drinking beer was actually safer than drinking water. This started to change around 1900, when public houses emerged, alongside coaching inns and hotels. As William explains, “The British pub started with the end-of-terrace house and a gregarious person selling beer. These people weren’t actually very good at the business side of things because they were much better at selling beer, so they ended up owing money to breweries. To get paid, the breweries repossessed the pubs, and then accidentally became the owners of these pubs.”

After university William worked in advertising, so when he decided to join the family business at the age of 29, he was tasked with setting up JW Lees’ first marketing department. At that time, JW Lees were still presenting themselves in a very traditional manner.

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He recalls the situation in Manchester at the time. “Boddingtons were the monster; they were the enemy. Boddingtons was the beer of Manchester. Everybody drank it. The thing that kept me awake at night was that if we were going to build JW Lees as a brand that would be anything other than ‘not quite Boddingtons’, then we needed to be really aware of the fact that they had the firepower of one of the biggest international breweries behind them. They were established 50 years before us. They had this great big chimney that you’d drive past every time you went into Manchester.”

One of William’s first initiatives to address this was to create an advertising campaign. While the approach would be seen as very politically incorrect now, it was less so then and they had to do something that was provocative to get people to view the brand as acceptable. “Although people loved the heritage of JW Lees, they saw it as an old man’s drink. We had to position the brand way over on the other side of the spectrum to give young people permission to drink our beer.”

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The advertising helped move JW Lees forward, but it was a phase that William describes as their “adolescence”. By the noughties there were major changes taking place in the beer industry, with an array of mergers and acquisitions. Many of the independent family brewers that had been the backbone of the industry ceased to exist during this time.

“There was a revolution happening in British brewing that nobody was really aware of. We were seeing the beginning of the craft beer revolution, where customers were saying: ‘We want different, individual beers.’ At this point, we sat there with our glass of ale and thought: ‘Is it half-full or half-empty?’ We decided that we needed to become much more specific in terms of how we were reinventing our business for the current generation of beer drinkers.”

Part of the process William initiated was to start thinking about the vision. Every year, JW Lees hold a company conference in central Manchester. Their first attempt to work on the vision was to develop it collaboratively during one such conference three or four years ago. This led to the vision: “Going further together to brew great times”.


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Looking back now, William describes their approach as “one of those worthy, management-consultancy-style ‘we’re listening to you’ type processes”. And 12 months later, no one could remember it: it wasn’t working. There was also confusion between the vision statement and the brand’s strapline (“Be Yourself”) that had been developed a few years previously. While the sentiment of individuality was important, since JW Lees are defiantly not a chain-pub company, it was causing problems. “It was giving colleagues the opportunity to do whatever they felt like. You’d say to people: ‘Why did you do that?’ And they’d say: ‘I was just being myself’.”

Rather than being tied to the past, William maintains a strong desire to keep improving. “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got. No matter how much we try and fight it, things are never going to be how they used to be, because everything will continue to change.” So with the previous vision not working, William had a strong desire to find something that would.

“It was at this point that a mailshot from Squad arrived. It was a really impressive piece, and having worked in marketing I appreciate when people do good work. There are lots of sharks out there. And there are lots of really terrible consultants who want to come into your business and create problems that you didn’t even know existed. But what appealed to me was that these guys aren’t like that.”

Nearly three years later, JW Lees will report an increase in turnover this year of £8m to £78m and net profits are up 41%. Manchester Craft Lager, which didn’t exist three years ago, is now the brand’s fourth best selling beer. As William says, “this has given us the confidence to launch a beer at a premium price in the market whereas previously we always focused on being good value. But probably most importantly, we measure our staff engagement every six months, which is currently at the highest level it’s ever been.”

To read more about our work with JW Lees that took them to this point, please see our case study here.


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The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family


The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family

The Questions We Asked goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with prior to briefing us. Sarah Dunning, CEO of The Westmorland Family, takes up the thread:

We’re a second-generation family business. Mum and Dad were and still are hill farmers just outside Tebay in Cumbria. In 1967 the M6 was being built through the corner of their farmland. The government decided there was to be a motorway service area at this point and my parents, in their 30s and keen to get on, made a bid to build and run it. They won the bid and in 1972 they opened Tebay Services northbound.

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Over the next 30 years they grew the business and in 2005 Dad handed over the reins to me. The challenge for me was to retain the DNA of the business whilst redefining it for a new generation. It is easy to feel between the devil and the deep blue sea – you don’t want to be the one that destroys the work of the past generation but you know you must be bold if you are to move it on.

We formed a new leadership team and agreed that we wanted to grow and that another motorway service area seemed like the logical step. It took seven years to plan but we finally opened the northbound side of what became Gloucester Services in May 2014. So in the last 10 years we have gone from a local Cumbrian business employing 450 people to one with businesses 300 miles apart, employing 1,000 people.

One of the decisions you have to make as a business is when to bring in external expertise. This can be difficult, especially when it relates to your core brand, but that’s sometimes when you need it most. In 2012, prior to opening Gloucester Services, we were discussing problems that were strategic but also creative. Squad were a small and young organisation, they knew our business and had some empathy with it and they came with both a strategic and creative background. And so we set about working together.

There were many questions at that time, which tended to pose themselves in the order that the problem arose. One of the first ones was what to call our new services in Gloucestershire, partly because we had to invest a lot of money in motorway signage. However, in trying to answer one question, we often found that we couldn’t do so without first answering a series of other questions. It became apparent that the initial question wasn’t always the most important one. Often there was a question behind the question that we needed to address first.

It became clear that the most important first question to resolve was what the brand stands for. Our ethos, which sat at the heart of the business, was very much about being a Cumbrian family business that had grown out of the farm and remained tied to it. However, we had to square this with our desire to grow the business and specifically with the opportunity we had to build a business in Gloucestershire, which inevitably would take us out of our own Cumbrian farming community. This dichotomy extended to many aspects of our business – our product offer, our buildings, our branding – so we had start with some fundamental questions.

Should the buildings in Gloucestershire ‘feel’ like Tebay Services? Should the food be from Gloucestershire, or should we bring some from Cumbria?

We knew our businesses couldn’t be ‘rolled out’ as Costa, Pret and M&S are. It’s much harder to grow a business this way, because each business has to be bespoke. It also means we’ll never grow to be a giant as some businesses do; but perhaps that’s a good thing – there is something to be said for staying smaller and true to purpose.

However, whilst Gloucester Services should have its own personality, as distinct as Tebay Services, we wanted the customer to feel that they were still siblings, albeit not twins. We had to consider how the buildings and landscape should read back to our identity. We wanted to capture the essence of our Cumbrian businesses but re-express it in an appropriate way for a new build. So whilst both feature heavy timber and stone, and feel quite earthy in their way, we exchanged the agricultural and rustic approach of Tebay, for a more contemporary and sleek design.

So how could we create a brand and branding that ties together our businesses with a recognisable thread, yet preserves that character and independence of them?

I have always believed that a business’ ethos should be the compass for every initiative and every innovation you undertake. Only by doing this will the customer understand what you are about. It is not enough to articulate your ethos (even if you can) but you have to deliver it through every touch point because some things are better felt than articulated.

Delivering it through every touch point is quite involved for us because we have around 100 acres of space, about 15,000 product lines and 1,000 people working in the business. We have 10 million customers a year through our businesses and our aspiration is that each one will leave with a sense of what we are about. I have no doubt that we regularly fall short of this aspiration, but we have to keep on trying.

So how could we make sure our branding was present but with a light touch – not like a rubber stamp?

To see how The Westmorland Family’s questions were answered, read the case study here.

Sarah Dunning and RG gave an extended talk based around this article at the 2016 Family Business United Annual Conference and the Cumbria Family Business Conference at Rheged the same year.

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A ripping plum cake


Ripping a plum cake

Albert Ball was a flying ace of great daring.

The first celebrity fighter pilot of the first world war.

Handsome and dashing, yet modest.

Known as the “Lone Wolf” due to the way he stalked his prey from below.

Hailed by not only his nation but his enemy, the Red Baron.

Albert shot down 43 enemy planes and one balloon.

With a further 25 unconfirmed kills.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross.

Shot down and killed, aged just 20, his parents collected his Victoria Cross—the highest award for bravery—from King George V on 22 July 1917.

But what was it that made this young man such a deadly fighter pilot?

Plum cake.

We know this because he requested it many times in his letters home.

To his mother he wrote: “You make me a cake, and I would like it all the more. I so love to have a huge piece of cake to go flying with in the morning. It is fine, and if made by you would be better still.”

To his sister: “I was so pleased to get your ripping cake, but I have nearly finished it. I love to take a huge piece with me when I fly.”

Plums are full of nutritional benefits: they’re crammed with dietary fibre, loaded with minerals, packed with vitamins (A, B6, C, E and K).

Plenty of stuff to fuel wellbeing and performance.

But of course it wasn’t the goodness in plum cake that made him so formidable.

It was what the plum cake stood for.

A potent symbol of why he was taking to the air.

A symbol of home, loved ones and a nation.

We can learn a lot from this.

Many CEOs now view their employees as their most important audience.

But more than ever, employees are individualists.

The old methods of command and control are no longer working.

Corporate missions can be cold, official and unexciting.

It’s important to give people a sense of purpose without imposing an ideology.

Through symbols and storytelling.

Filling people with a sense of what needs to be done and an utter belief in its imminent success.

Whether it’s a piece of advertising or marketing; a space or an object, almost doesn't matter.

What does matter is the meaning with which it’s imbued.

This is what makes it dramatic and emotional.

With an ability to propel people in the right direction.

Motivating, accelerating and sustaining positive behaviours.

Puncturing people’s autopilots.

Now that’s ripping.

– DB


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POV*: Build a marketing culture, not a department


POV*: Build a marketing culture, not a department

Great brands used to be built with blockbuster campaigns. The next generation of global brands are being built entirely differently. Their language is not reach and frequency but customer experience and new ways of thinking such as growth hacking. Understanding not just what they do, but how they do it, is central to unpicking their formula. To emulate them, marketing strategy must move from being the output of a department to an organisation-wide culture.

The death of blockbuster marketing
Creating a marketing campaign used to be like making a movie. It would be planned months, if not years, in advance. There was a linear process of: research, communications planning, creative development, more research, production, implementation and evaluation. Each stage of the process would take weeks, if not longer. Significant levels of resources were deployed for every element.

The risks were like making movies too. William Goldman once said of the movie business: “Nobody knows anything. Even the people in charge. It’s all a big gamble.” Despite all the research and pre-testing, it was impossible to mitigate the risk. Significant sums had to be committed to media and only when this had been invested were the returns known.

For years marketing departments and their agencies were built around this blockbuster model. Creative and strategy teams were used to having time and people aplenty for every brief. Team structures had hierarchies. Processes had checkpoints so key decisions could be referred upwards. The system was built for big-budget productions, not speed or agility.

The advent of digital media turned everything on its head. One of the interesting manifestations of this is Millward Brown’s Annual league table of global brands. It still includes names like Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Disney and Nike. These are brands that were built in the old way, with blockbuster campaign after blockbuster campaign. However, it also contains brands like Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Zara and Amazon. These have been built in a completely different way. They’ve become global superstars in a fraction of the time their predecessors took. How many blockbuster campaigns can you recall for these brands? Identifying what they do differently is central to understanding the future of marketing.

A new mindset—Growth Hacking
The strategies being deployed so successfully by these brands are not as simple as embracing digital media. For example, many brands are currently shifting significant proportions of their budgets into content. Yet,

“In YouTube or Instagram rankings of channels by number of subscribers, corporate brands barely appear. Only three have cracked the YouTube Top 500”
(Marketing, April 2016).

Simply contributing further to people’s levels of marketing saturation is not going to yield success. To emulate their success it’s vital to understand how the new generation of brands are behaving, not just what they are doing.

One technique that sheds light on the different approaches of tech brands is growth hacking. The term was coined by Sean Ellis—a tech veteran of Dropbox, Eventbrite and numerous others—who wrote a 2010 blog post on the subject. The concept has spread throughout the tech industry and is covered comprehensively by Quick Sprout.




From all that’s been said and written about growth hacking, a number of elements stand out as being central to this philosophy:

1. Clarity of focus
Growth hackers are totally focused on growth (user acquisition) to the exclusion of all other objectives.

“Every decision that a growth hacker makes is informed by growth. Every strategy, every tactic, and every initiative, is attempted in the hopes of growing. Growth is the sun that a growth hacker revolves around”
(Quick Sprout, 9 August 2016).

This is not to say that marketeers never share this goal, but they typically will have a broader range of objectives. For example, increasing frequency or stemming a decline in users.

2. Monopolise small communities
Despite the necessity to grow fast, many tech companies do not have the financial resources of established global brands. Although many of them are relatively well fi nanced, their budgets do not stretch to global advertising campaigns. This forces them to focus on much narrower target audiences. Instead of seeking a small share of a large audience, they focus on monopolising a smaller one. One example is Etsy. The online marketplace for crafts was founded in 2005. Although eBay was already well established, Etsy’s founders spotted an opportunity to focus on a community of anti-consumerist crafters in the US. They built a loyal following amongst this audience and it was these advocates who then powered further growth through word of mouth. Ten years after it was founded, Etsy’s IPO valued it at $3.5 billion.

3. Iterate fast
The huge increase in the volume and frequency of interactions between brands and customers was covered in our last POV* piece on positioning.

Adam Sweeney of London Strategy Unit, talks about microinteractions:

“Brands as ubiquitous as Amazon, Nike and Starbucks have realised that every tiny moment that a user wants something—whether it’s to log in, to go for a jog, to relax—is a moment to assist, impress and even delight them in giving them something they want, when they want it.”

Growth hackers embrace this philosophy. Aided by their digital toolkit they are able to deploy a huge volume of activity at a rapid pace.

4. Harness data
With Growth hackers, data is not something that’s confined to the research department or used to justify activity during the end-of-year review. Analytics is central to everything they do. Everything is monitored to understand what works and what doesn’t. Split testing is used wherever possible to ensure activity is completely optimised. The insight gained is used to repeat what works and ditch what doesn’t.

These are some of the ways in which growth hacking is said to differ to traditional marketing. However, it’s debatable whether these techniques are fundamentally different to the activities of a modern marketing department: particularly the most progressive ones where big data, real time and personalisation have been truly embraced. The most interesting aspect of growth hacking is something else. And it’s something most brands have yet to get to grips with.

Culture as marketing strategy
The difference between growth hacking and traditional marketing can best be understood by looking at the outputs rather than the process. Two of the best known examples of growth hacking include:

As a small start-up, Airbnb needed a cheap way to promote their new service. Craigslist is an established website for classified advertisements with a huge user base, particularly in the US. Airbnb developed a hack that allowed rentals listed on their site to be automatically posted to Craigslist. This dramatically increased the exposure for their brand and led to exponential growth.

Struggling to find a way to promote their new email service, one of the Hotmail team suggested they automatically add a message to the bottom of every email sent using their service. It simply read: “Get your free e-mail at Hotmail”. Every time anyone sent an email they were promoting Hotmail’s brand, which kickstarted huge growth.

What’s interesting about these examples is that marketing is not something that happens to the product at the end of the process; the product is the marketing. This shift in focus is similar to the one currently taking place in customer experience in many sectors beyond the tech industry itself. Brands are realising that a great experience is great marketing.



In the US, $83 billion is lost each year due to poor and inconsistent customer experiences (IBM: The State of Marketing 2013). The advent of social media makes the fallout from poor customer service even more pronounced. The experience of British Airways highlights the issue. After the airline lost Hasan Syed’s father’s luggage he tweeted “Don’t fly @BritishAirways, their customer service is horrendous”. He then paid around $1,000 to promote the tweet, which resulted in 76,800 impressions and 14,600 engagements by the following day (Raconteur, 8 September 2015).

On the flip side, KLM are one of the brands demonstrating the power of a great customer experience. To highlight their Lost and Found service they created a video starring a dog called Sherlock. The loveable beagle accompanies staff as they tidy the aircrafts once passengers have disembarked. If any items have been left behind, Sherlock and the team track the owner through the airport and return their lost property. To have an important or treasured item returned like this is way beyond most people’s expectations of great customer service, which is reflected by viewing figures for their video—currently over 22 million on YouTube.

What’s emerging is the need for marketing to stop being confined to a single department. Marketing needs to be re-understood in its original form, as a business-wide management process. The way a marketeer thinks about understanding, attracting and retaining customers must become a philosophy that runs across every department within the business. In essence, a marketing culture should run across the whole organisation.

Stating this is easy. Delivering it is harder. It requires extensive coordination across all departments in the business—from the shopfront and the factory, to the social media and call centre teams. It requires investment in supply chains, internal systems, mobile, website and data analysis, amongst others. Many of these areas have been far from the traditional domain of marketeers. 

Building a marketing culture
A number of brands are starting to take practical steps towards creating a marketing culture across their organisations. John Lewis recently promoted their Marketing Director, Craig Inglis, to the new board-level role of Customer Director. He will now oversee the end-to-end customer experience. Agencies too are creating new roles. Bartle Bogle Hegarty now have a Chief Experience Officer.

Adam Powers explains that:

“The changing landscape means that CXO must seek out additional partnerships beyond the chief marketing officer. Whether it’s with the chief innovation office, chief technology officer or others, these new creative collaborations are critical to the customer-centric business transformation that every chief executive must surely be seeking”
(Campaign, 18 September 2015).

But developing a business-wide marketing culture isn’t just a case of believing that a couple of key promotions or hires will do the trick. Indeed, marketing-centric cultures actually begin (or end) way beyond the most senior marketer. Peter Drucker’s famous quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast” contains an implicit challenge to those at the top: make sure you’re doing everything you can to foster the right beliefs, values and behaviours amongst your entire team, as in the end the buck stops with you.

For leaders looking to establish a marketing culture, three issues stand out as needing focus.

Firstly, be clear about what a marketing culture means to your business. Some businesses— FMCG or life sciences for example—are highly innovation driven. For these organisations, a culture of marketing might focus on discovering unmet consumer needs. Other businesses— retail or financial services for example— are built on customer service. A culture of marketing might focus on improving the operational elements that govern their customer service to enable them to deliver an experience that surprises and delights. Agreeing clear objectives based on an understanding of what drives success in a business is critical.

Secondly, accept that the journey is going to be long. Shifting from product- to customer-centricity requires more than a few workshops. In the case of the innovation-driven businesses highlighted above, everything from sales interactions to back-end data and CRM systems are going to have to be reimagined, their role interrogated and new operational plans laid out and implemented. This is potentially many year’s work (although quick wins will likely be achievable along the way). Accepting and articulating this upfront helps with both budgeting and team management. It will also force detailed discussions about whether the shift is right for the business, and what sacrifices the company is willing to make.

Thirdly, ensure that incentives are aligned to desired outcomes. A few years ago, a leading FMCG manufacturer was seeking to establish a business-wide culture of digital marketing excellence. They invested a great deal of effort in briefing and training their teams, but 12 months later were dismayed with the results. The reason? Existing marketers were given bonuses based on TV link test results; sales teams on key account growth; and customer service agents on call times. Not one department had any incentive to drive the change that the business sought. Realigning incentives to different outcomes is rarely popular work—people tend to have ways to ensure the existing systems work well for them—but it is essential if you want to motivate people to perform in a certain way.



At a wider level, one of the key questions as businesses move in this direction will be whether confining marketing to a single department is still the right approach. Some of its core functions might break out and become disciplines in their own right—research, product management, social media, campaign execution, for example. But marketing strategy will be elevated to a position where it has a much broader influence across every single function of the business—from the design of the product to the way it’s delivered to customers. In doing this marketing will have evolved from something done by a department to a culture or philosophy that’s practised by the whole organisation.

There’ll be many practical obstacles on the road to achieving this, but those brands that do so can look forward to a successful future.

—RG & PL

This piece was written in collaboration with Phil Lewis, Co-founder of London Strategy Unit and Director of Strategy at Albion. Phil now runs Corporate Punk, a business that challenges ambitious businesses to destroy barriers to innovation, growth and business happiness.

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